Surface Warfare Magazine
Sharing stories and news from Sailors across the U.S. Navy’s Surface Forces
 
4/1/2015
Reflection and Projection
Whidbey Island Class Celebrates 30 Years Of Service… Looks Into Future

Whidbey Island ClassHaving recently completed its mid-life modernization, USS Whidbey Island (LSD 41) and the ships in her class stand ready to support future operations for decades to come.

But why are these dock landing ships so important? A look into the history of the ships sheds light on their centrality to U.S. amphibious strategy at the time of their inception to today’s modern threats.

Whidbey Island, the first in her class, was commissioned on Feb. 9, 1985. The ships in her class were designed to counter Soviet Forces during the Cold War and are capable of landing Marines and equipment ashore while projecting air power against contended beaches.

At the time, the Soviet ‘Red Fleet’ was actively deploying the Ropucha (toad), or Project 775 class amphibious landing ships. Classified as large landing craft by the Russian Navy, the Ropucha class ships were designed for beach landings and could carry a 450-ton cargo load.

The majority of the Whidbey Island class ships were commissioned during the Cold War, with Ashland commissioning shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1992.

Together they are considered the “work-horses” of the amphibious Navy, featuring large well decks with the ability to launch and recover Landing Craft, Air Cushion (LCAC) hovercraft and a range of amphibious assault vehicles. They also feature large flight decks for multiple types of rotary-wing aircraft, including the tilt-rotor MV-22 Osprey. The hull design of the ship allows for a shallow draft, making them ideal for participating in amphibious operations close to shore.

 

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USS Fort McHenry

A survey of accomplishments and operations from these ships reads like a history of world events in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

  • In 1989, Fort McHenry participated in the cleanup of the massive Exxon Valdez oil spill which, at the time, was the largest spill in U.S. waters.
  • In 1991, Germantown participated in Operations Desert Storm and Desert Shield by conducting mock amphibious landings in the United Arab Emirates in preparation for a possible amphibious assault.
  • In 1992, Whidbey Island, as part of the USS Wasp (LHD 1) Amphibious Ready Group, made history by making port calls to Samsun, Turkey and Burgas, Bulgaria, becoming the first U.S. amphibious ship and the largest U.S. warship to operate in the Black Sea, the first U.S. Navy ship to visit Samsun in 70 years and the first U.S. Navy ship to ever visit Burgas.
  • Whidbey Island deployed just eight days after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. While on station in the Persian Gulf, the embarked 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit set the record for conducting the longest amphibious operation ever – nearly 700 nautical miles inland.
  • In 2004, Rushmore was called into action following a cataclysmic earthquake in South East Asia. A massive U.S. military humanitarian operation, dubbed Operation Unified Assistance took place where the ship became an afloat staging base for military helicopters to refuel and transport supplies. Rushmore launched LCACs, transporting tons of food and water ashore for distribution to survivors.
  • In 2005, 35 Sailors from Amphibious Construction Battalion (ACB) 2 and more than 200 personnel from Marine Expeditionary Unit Service Support Group (MEUSSG) 24 Joint Task Force (JTF) arrived in the Gulf of Mexico aboard Whidbey Island to assist in Hurricane Katrina search and rescue efforts. The Sailors and Marines distributed food, water and other necessities, conducted door-to-door search and rescue and provided security enforcement in devastated areas.
  • In 2006, Comstock, as part of the USS Boxer (LHD 4) Expeditionary Strike Group, delivered Marines into al-Anbar province, Iraq at the beginning of the 2006 troop surge.
  • Gunston Hall was deployed in January as part of rescue efforts after the 2010 Haiti Earthquake, providing supplies and relief assistance as part of Operation Unified Response.
  • In 2010, Ashland rescued six pirates after sinking their skiff in response to being fired upon off the coast of Djibouti.
  • In March 2011, Tortuga participated in the disaster relief mission Operation Tomodachi after the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. During the mission the ship transported Japanese Self-Defense Force servicemen and equipment from Hokkaido to Honshu Island. Divers from the ship helped map and clear debris from the ports of Hachinohe, Aomori and Miyako, Iwate, facilitating both ports to reopen to ship traffic.

As the histories of these ships demonstrate, the Whidbey Island class not only has the capability to serve as an effective combat platform but also the versatility as an effective platform for disaster relief.

While no one knows what events are in store for the U.S. Navy in the following decades, one thing is certain: the ships of the Whidbey Island class will continue to be the “work horses” of the fleet. Surface Warfare Magazine

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